An entrepreneur is breaking down barriers to mental healthcare in Latinx communities
With her platform, Latinx Therapy, established in April 2018, Adriana Alejandre wants to transform the way that Latinx mental health professionals can connect with those seeking access to care.
Even though she is now a licensed therapist and entrepreneur leading a platform to educate and draw together Latinx mental health professionals and individuals seeking care, it wasn’t always normal for Alejandre to talk, or think, about her own mental health.
Growing up in a modest home with immigrant parents in Los Angeles, California, she was not used to thinking about her mental health as something that was integral to her being: a lens through which to view the experiences of her own family, including her mother, who fled from Guatemala at the age of 15.
Alejandre’s mindset changed, however, after she became a single mother in her sophomore year of college at the University of Santa Barbara. Though she thought she was “just a college student, really stressed out, with a baby at home,” a psychologist she spoke with in the months after she gave birth to her son diagnosed her with postpartum depression.
“That really, really piqued my attention to human behavior, specifically my own, and then immediately my family’s,” Alejandre said. She went on to take a course in abnormal psychology and “was sold.” She majored in the field and then went on to complete a master’s course after graduation to become a licensed therapist.
“I knew that my immediate community here, in my low socioeconomic area, in my neighborhood, needed more help, needed more education,” she said.
For Alejandre, her own experience with mental health challenges was the beginning of her journey as a professional — and her mission as a therapist to change the terms of mental healthcare discussions in her Latinx communities in California, and throughout the nation.
To this end, she founded Latinx Therapy in April 2018, an online platform designed to provide the Latinx community with education, resources from more than 200 nonprofits across the country, and access to over 1,000 bilingual and/or Latinx therapists. Alejandre also produces a podcast in both Spanish and English that is housed on the platform.
The need for a resource like Latinx Therapy became clear soon after it launched, Alejandre said.
“Within the first week I received hundreds of emails of people saying comments such as ‘I never knew I could choose a professional, let alone a Latinx mental health professional,’” Alejandre recalled. “People were really, really craving to get into therapy with a Latinx professional, which was so beautiful. It was something that I didn’t even think about, necessarily. Because I am a Latinx mental health professional, I didn’t think that people were struggling [to find] their own.”
The statistics on the prevalence of stigma toward discussing mental health struggles, or seeking access to mental healthcare services, are grim for people of all races, ages, and backgrounds throughout the country.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2016 nearly 45 million adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness- but almost 60 percent did not seek treatment from mental healthcare professionals. That translates into close to 26 million adults in the U.S. who contend with mental illness in a given year without receiving any type of care.
It’s even worse for the Latinx population. According to NIMH, in 2016 roughly 30 percent of Hispanics/Latinos with a mental illness received treatment, compared to close to 50 percent for White individuals with any mental illness accessing mental health services.
The stigma barrier is one that Alejandre was familiar with from her own experience growing up in a Latinx, immigrant household, as well as from the experiences her Latinx friends and colleagues have shared with her.
“I realized that there was so much fear...seeking out more mental health services, because if you sought out for help, that means you are crazy, or that means it’s just really for the white culture because they’re crazy, and we don’t have any problems,” she said. “And, if we do have problems, we talk about it inside the home, and we don’t get involved with any systems.”
Her work with Latinx Therapy has involved using social media, community events, and other platforms to educate Latinx individuals, and dismantle those myths.
Part of that education, Alejandre said, is reassuring concerned members of the community that therapists are not ethically, or legally, required to report their immigration status.
“I really believe that if we are aware of these myths and we provide education, to really top the fear, eliminate it, then the community will know more. They will know that we exist, that there are Spanish-speaking therapists now out there, compared to the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s,” she said.
Alejandre also chose to launch a podcast, to further ensure that better information could be available to members of the Latinx community.
“The reason why I even thought about doing that was because...I was frustrated that my clients could not go home and listen to more material, especially my Spanish-speaking clients. I wanted more for them, and it didn’t exist, so I created it for them,” said Alejandre..
“I wasn’t having it, I was having such a hard time finding books, but again, the Latinx community, there are some older Spanish speakers who can’t even read, so I wouldn’t even be suggesting that,” she added. “And it’s just easier to digest sometimes when you can just poke a button on your phone and start listening to a podcast. I think that’s why it resonated with a lot of people, of various generations, because of the accessibility.”
For Alejandre, the personal element - being able to share her own life experiences in order to connect to her audience - was another important aspect she wanted to include in the podcast production, despite the fact that “many grad programs” often train mental health professionals to not share as much about their own personal experiences.
Alejandre counters that, in her experience, “that is the way that most of our people find healing, because they can relate, find connection, and find community that way.”
“And we’re human!” she added about therapists themselves, who she believes are often portrayed as being “very boring” by the media and pop culture. “We’re not above anyone. Our clients, anyone seeking help, is an expert in their own lives, and mental health professionals are just there to help guide you to your own answers.”
Alejandre said that a key piece in ensuring that more Latinx individuals have access to care is ensuring that prospective patients can easily find and locate Latinx therapists, therapists of color, and, more generally, the therapists best able to provide them with the care that they need.
To that end, Alejandre believes it is essential to create networks and support systems for Latinx individuals who enter the mental healthcare profession - at times amid objections from their own family members because of the stigma associated even with being the one providing care.
And the lack of Latinx therapists is statistically glaring. According to a 2015 report from the American Psychology Association, as of 2013, approximately 5 percent of active psychologists identify as Hispanic, and just 16 percent of the active psychological workforce is composed of racial/ethnic minority groups, compared to nearly 40 percent of the overall workforce nationwide.
When nearly half the counties in the United States - most of them in sparsely-populated areas - do not have any working psychiatrists within their boundaries, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, it is easy to see why finding any therapist, and especially a Latinx therapist or therapist of color, is often a challenge for Latinx individuals.
Alejandre hopes that through bolstering support systems for Latinx mental healthcare professionals, more will enter the field, and in turn more Latinx individuals will be able to connect with therapists that speak their language, look like them, and can provide more culturally-informed care.
“Through social media, through the emails, the podcast, I get a lot of inquiries [from] people saying how hard it is for them to find mental health professionals that they identify with,” Alejandre noted. “At many points they’re like, ‘Can I have any therapist of color, please?’ and I get that.”
“I would like for Latinx Therapy to grow, in terms of the directory of members, and do more events on a nationwide level.”
Alejandre envisions a change where, within the next ten years, 50 to 60 percent of Latinx individuals in the U.S. will utilize mental healthcare services. She also hopes that within the next five years the Latinx Therapy platform will evolve into a place where patients can actually receive care, via a link that mental health professionals associated with the site could share with their clients in order to provide online counseling.
Right now, her team of volunteers, her fiancé, her 8-year-old son, and her mother have all pitched in to grow Latinx Therapy as Alejandre continues to maintain her private practice and works to grow the platform.
Thank you to everyone supporting the podcast and purchasing destigmatizing merchandise! I’m so glad the merchandise has been selling out. It’s allowed me to restock & create more products that aim towards demystifying mental health in our comunidad. - Small hoodies are sold out but we still have medium, large, & 2XL! You can purchase directly from the website now! #latinxtherapy
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No matter how big her dreams are, for Alejandre, starting a mental healthcare journey for every individual starts one step at a time.
She advised anyone hoping to raise the subject of mental health with others to “tap into their body and find where stress and your past is living in your body,” and seek out communities, many of which can be found at universities for free or at low cost, or online via Facebook groups and other spaces.
“I think for us it involves a lot of community because we need connection in order to not feel like there’s something wrong with us,” said Alejandre of Latinx individuals.
“Once we hear what we think coming out of someone else’s mouth, it’s so powerful, because we feel like we’re not alone anymore.”